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Lessons for peacemakers from engagement with criminal organisations in the Americas

Latin American and Caribbean countries are embroiled in a crisis of armed violence: home to a mere eight per cent of the world’s population but 29 per cent of its homicides, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The lion’s share of these deaths is linked to armed organisations ranging from gangs to drug traffickers, paramilitaries, and insurgents, most of which have not traditionally fallen within the purview of peacemaking and peacebuilding.

Distinguishing between ‘political’ and ‘criminal’ groups is in many respects false, or at least an over-simplification.
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It is common to approach engagement with these organisations by distinguishing between ‘political’ and ‘criminal’ groups, but this dichotomy is, in many respects, false, or at least an over-simplification of organisations whose motivations, histories and ways of sustaining themselves span a complex spectrum of political, socio-cultural, economic and criminal activity.

For decades, the predominant approach to tackling armed organisations cast as ‘criminal’ has been through law enforcement and criminal justice. Failures to produce sustainable solutions have often been seized upon to demand ever more hardline measures. In El Salvador, most notably, President Nayib Bukele has jettisoned the rule of law and incarcerated one in every fifty adults in the name of security. His ‘war on gangs’ has found huge support, and across the region a growing number of politicians aspire to copy him.

Experience over the last 20 years suggests that dialogue, negotiation and mediation with criminal organisations can reduce crime and violence. But peacemaking with criminal organisations is fraught with challenges. The scale and nature of criminal violence generates intense trauma among its victims and widespread abhorrence of its perpetrators, and thus a reluctance to acknowledge any scope for engagement. A mixed track record has demonstrated that enabling negotiations requires legal frameworks that provide protection for mediators, assurance for the individuals and criminal organisations involved, and an agreed approach to justice. It also requires concerted political and social efforts to build consensus on the approach, promote reconciliation between criminal actors and communities, rehumanise members of these organisations as a step towards reintegrating them, and the delivery of government services that respond to the needs of affected populations.

Reducing violence and the influence of criminal actors depends on devising sustainable alternatives to illicit economies, as well as strategies to ensure that an organisation that relinquishes a particular niche within a criminal market will not be immediately replaced by another. But addressing incentives of other kinds – the interests of an organisation’s members in gaining status, dignity and legitimacy in society, for example – is also critically important. There will, however, be limits on the potential for peacemaking with large or transnational criminal organisations that wield economic power that is not subject to domestic dynamics. The conduct of these organisations would need to be addressed in the context of broader international efforts, including new approaches to the 'war on drugs' and the transformation of illicit economies.

‘Total peace’ in context

The ambitious policy for ‘total peace’ in Colombia launched by President Gustavo Petro to address the onslaught of armed violence assailing the country is the region’s most prominent laboratory for urban peace processes and negotiation with criminal actors. The logic of ‘total peace’ is born of the understanding that to end cycles of violence the government must engage with all the relevant organisations at the same time to prevent vacuums of power and the recycling of armed actors into new groups.

‘Total peace’ faces many challenges and considerable domestic hostility, but it has redefined the security conversation within Colombia and beyond by directly confronting the failure of hard security policies alone to reduce violence, and pursuing an alternative path that combines negotiation with broader political reforms to address its root causes. How the experiment turns out will have repercussions across the region, as governments seek either to adopt some of its elements or retrench into mano dura (iron-fist) policies.

After assuming power in August 2022, Petro’s government moved quickly to reinitiate negotiations with the National Liberation Army (ELN), a leftist insurgency with an estimated 6,000 members in arms. In 2016, some months before signing a peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the government of Juan Manuel Santos had reached a framework agreement with the ELN, but the talks were soon suspended. The ELN can leverage its organisational capabilities to escalate but also to de-escalate armed violence. Its leaders serve as interlocutors with whom to negotiate reductions in violence, as well as develop broader agendas for peace, including the demobilisation, disarmament, and reintegration of its members.

Meanwhile, the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC), an armed organisation participating in multiple markets, including drugs and mining, several of whose leaders have a background in insurgent groups, is estimated to have as many as 4,000 members and up to 7,000 collaborators belonging to smaller affiliated groups operating in three-quarters of Colombia’s 32 departments. The Office of Envigado is a federation of several hundred neighbourhood gangs in the city of Medellín, to mention but the two largest among several dozen Colombian armed organisations cast as ‘criminal’.

Traditional approaches to peacemaking would suggest that the ELN’s political raison d’être fundamentally differentiates it from that of criminal armed organisations like the AGC or the Office of Envigado, rendering it suitable to a negotiated settlement. However, the clarity of this distinction neglects the socio-economic drivers that contribute to the persistence of many of those groups labelled as criminal as well as their capacities for territorial control and political influence. It also obfuscates the illicit economies that have sustained the ELN’s armed struggle.

The fundamental strategic premise for peacemaking approaches with any of these armed organisations is more similar than is generally recognised – in particular that the degree of centralised control of violence affords the opportunity to broker deals with them as collectives, rather than seeking to tackle each one of their members as individuals – be they guerrillas or paramilitaries, transnational drug traffickers or corner gangs. The organisations will approach negotiations with a mix of interests and motivations, and the political, legal and economic challenges in conducting them will vary. However, mediation and negotiation with such organisations is already widespread across the continent, from Los Angeles to São Paulo, though poorly understood and too frequently dismissed out of hand.

Getting the politics right

Peacemaking with armed criminal organisations can take many forms: there may be attempts to reduce violence between armed organisations, or negotiations between armed organisations and the state to end criminal activity. Some deals are directly negotiated, while others are mediated by state and non-governmental actors, domestic or foreign.

El Salvador is emblematic of both the success and the failure of peacemaking with criminal organisations. In 2012, the government of President Mauricio Funes mediated an initially secret truce between the country’s three dominant gangs, securing a spectacular, instant homicide reduction (as discussed in Accord 25). However, the government proved unable to cultivate a longer-term political project to make the gains in violence reduction sustainable. Indeed, Funes publicly distanced himself from the process even as he instructed his government to take it forward, undermining the support of an already sceptical Salvadoran public. Even so, the truce largely held into 2014, before the gangs proceeded to leverage their capacity to regulate violence to give El Salvador the highest homicide rate in the world in 2015.

Members of the Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha gangs attend a press conference at Quezaltepeque prison, El Salvador, at which leaders of both gangs declared the city of Quezaltepeque a peace zone for gang-related violence, 31 January 2013.
Members of the Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha gangs attend a press conference at Quezaltepeque prison, El Salvador, at which leaders of both gangs declared the city of Quezaltepeque a peace zone for gang-related violence, 31 January 2013. © Juan Carlos/AFP via Getty Images

Ecuador, too, experimented with peacemaking with criminal actors. In 2005 the police chief of Guayaquil mediated a gang truce. In contrast to El Salvador, this opportunity was seized to expand the process to the national level, broaden its scope well beyond homicide reduction, and include more gangs. Although initially reluctant, upon coming to power in 2007 President Rafael Correa ordered state institutions, including the police, to support the complex process, which was eventually referred to in shorthand as ‘legalisation.’ They did so by promoting the economic, social, and political conditions necessary to bring the gangs out of the shadows, offering livelihood opportunities to their members. The state was able to successfully mediate inter-gang conflicts by providing safety for participating gangs and programmes for social inclusion, employment, and educational opportunities.

The political effervescence of Correa’s transformational politics and an economic boom enabled a holistic approach to security and development to be supported by generous state funding over several years. As Brotherton and Gude discuss in their 2018 paper, ‘Social inclusion from below’, rather than trying to eliminate the gangs, the process sought to change them as part of a broader transformation towards a more inclusionary state and society, a process they describe as ‘collective desistance’.

Over the ten years from 2008 to 2017, the homicide rate in Ecuador dropped by 68 per cent – the most significant and sustained reduction in gang violence in the Americas in recent history. Armed violence began rising in 2018 and has recently spun entirely out of control, largely driven by organisations that were not part of the earlier process, changes in cocaine routes, neglect and corruption in the prison system and the police, and measures of extreme austerity which have weakened the state.

El Salvador and Ecuador both underline the importance of state support for such processes as well as a broad political consensus to ensure the sustainability of violence reduction gains beyond the term in office of a particular political leader. Criminal actors are not monolithic, and their actions and responses are conditioned by the political context.

Pathways to legality for criminal organisations and their members

Peacemaking with criminal organisations requires purpose-built legal frameworks to provide cover for those engaged in mediation and peace support, as well as to provide pathways to legality for the organisations and their members.

Around the world, various armed organisations are regularly stamped as ‘criminal’, if not ‘terrorist’ entities, entailing potential legal hazards for anyone who seeks to engage with them. In an egregious example, the chief mediator in the 2012–14 Salvadoran gang truce was eventually convicted to thirteen years in prison for his efforts, while two dozen public servants involved were prosecuted but ultimately acquitted. The president and minister of justice and public security authorised the mediation process but failed to push for the necessary legal safeguards to protect the people charged with implementing their policies.

Ecuador, by contrast, not only decriminalised gang membership, but granted several gangs legal status as cultural associations and provided incentives for the organisations to transform and promote prosocial behaviours among their members – which they did.

In Colombia, Petro’s government has prioritised the development of a legal framework for its strategy for ‘total peace’. The strategy was first formally enshrined in the Law of Total Peace (Ley 2272) adopted in November 2022. It involves pursuing a conventional process of internationally supported peace negotiations with the ELN as well as – more controversially – talks with dissident factions of the FARC that did not demobilise following the 2016 peace accord. ‘Conversations’ or ‘socio-legal dialogues’ with several other armed organisations are also under way, ranging from major transnational criminal enterprises to minor neighbourhood gangs.

In addition to the Ley 2272, the government is developing a legal framework that would allow for an eventual reintegration. Clear legal framing would hold out the promise of a future on the right side of the law for those who demobilise, as well as truth, accountability, and a measure of justice for victims and communities. It would also help to overcome fears that dialogue with criminal actors is rife with backroom dealings by providing conditions for a public reconciliation process.

Humanising security

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to sustainable violence reduction through engagement with criminal organisations is the moral panic it induces.
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Perhaps the biggest obstacle to sustainable violence reduction through engagement with criminal organisations is the moral panic it induces. The difficulty of humanising such highly stigmatised actors means that peacemakers have to pay particular attention to efforts to build support, or at least acceptance, within society.

Two areas stand out as especially important. First, the need to engage with communities, both to cultivate local peace and reconciliation processes by preparing communities to integrate those who demobilise and to develop locally resonant and holistic alternatives for security. As Jenny Pearce and Alexandra Abello Colak have argued, ‘a large-scale rethink of the security paradigm’ is required. For this to take root, the active involvement of ‘those who experience these phenomena most intensely’ is needed to build a sustainable alternative that might ‘counter the entrenchment of authoritarian views among citizens propelled by repressive responses that continue to be recycled without positive impacts on security’.

Second is the need to leverage religious capital. Religious leaders regularly serve as mediators or guarantors of dialogue with criminal organisations. Religious leaders frequently proselytise among these organisations’ members in prisons and in the communities to which they will return, and have influence and authority with criminal actors. They can play an important role in helping to usher in a paradigm shift around security, recasting and humanising the perpetrators of violence and reimagining relationships with them.

Mediating security

In the face of the unappealing alternatives of failing law-enforcement and criminal justice strategies, or the authoritarian tactics possible in a small country such as El Salvador, a transformative, holistic framework that embeds peacemaking within a broader political and socio-economic strategy offers potential for engaging criminal organisations of varying degrees of sophistication, lowering the levels of violence assailing communities, and moving towards a more sustainable peace.

Such processes will be both extraordinarily challenging and vulnerable to political and social shifts; they will also continue to raise many questions. For example, under what circumstances will it be possible to substitute legitimate livelihood alternatives for the illicit rent-seeking strategies of members of organised criminal entities? And what kinds of structures at the local or community level will be needed to help sustain their transformation? Can such approaches have lasting purchase on criminal structures with strong connections to the state, or transnational networks with access to more lucrative economic opportunities than any government policy could replicate?

Innovative practice across the region, including in Colombia, where Petro’s pursuit of ‘total peace’ has met considerable resistance, will not easily deliver the results desired. However, against a growing understanding of the limitations of other approaches to the region’s profound security challenges, the lessons that can already be derived from what has worked, and what hasn’t, can usefully be applied to ongoing practice in the region, and beyond. Sadly, the number of conflicts across the world in which peace is impeded by powerful criminal actors and entrenched illicit economies means that the experience of the Americas will resonate far beyond the region’s shores.